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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"
Boko Haram: Africa's Homegrown Terror Network
By Carlo Davis
The headlines roll in with the frequency and dispassion of soccer results. On Saturday, November 10, 2012, four men are shot at a bar in Yobe, Nigeria. On the same day in Gujba, gunmen shoot three cops then firebomb a police station, three churches, and a primary school. Eight days earlier, a retired military officer is assassinated in his home in Maiduguri. They are the victims of a sweeping regime of violence, waged across northern Nigeria since 2009 by an Islamic extremist militia calling itself Jamā'atu Ahlis Sunnah Lādda'awatih wal-Jihad, or People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. Not surprisingly, such a long-winded title has failed to catch on, and the group is known almost exclusively by the nickname they were given by neighbors in Maiduguri while still a nascent but mostly peaceful religious sect—Boko Haram, a Hausa phrase that roughly translates to “Western education is sinful.”
Both monikers strongly evoke the rhetoric of Salafism, the ultra-conservative stream of Sunni Islam espoused by al-Qaida and its affiliates around the world. But what Boko Haram has in common with al-Qaida, and the extent to which they are in league with them, only distracts from the thoroughly local nature of the sect. For Boko Haram is not the Nigerian Taliban, as another early media nickname deemed it, so much as it is the twisted byproduct of years of poverty, corruption, and division in Africa’s most populous country. Boko Haram is Nigeria’s reflection in the mirror, and the country does not like what it sees.
Even on a continent known for ethnic and tribal conflict, Nigeria stands out for its sectionalism. The country is said to contain over 250 different ethnic groups, with a corresponding stew of languages and dialects (for more on this, see Oyenike Adeosun’s article). On top of that is a religious divide between Christians and Muslims, each of which represent roughly half of Nigeria’s population. Finally, there is a regional divide between the north and south of Nigeria. They were separate protectorates under British rule until 1914, and the south received more education and infrastructure, leading to an economic lag in the north that persists to this day.
Governing such a divided state will never be an easy undertaking, but Nigeria’s current regime still leaves much to be desired. The parade of military juntas that ruled Nigeria since independence only gave way to democracy in 1999, and one party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has controlled the presidency since then. Former military dictators regularly show up on the presidential slates of both the PDP and its rivals, and allegations of corruption, election fraud, and outright stealing of government funds are rampant.
All of this is made possible by oil, which was discovered in the Niger Delta in 1956 and soon become the pillar of Nigeria’s economy. As Fidelis Allen discusses in the current issue, the Nigerian government has a majority stake in all oil projects in the country, and the constant stream of revenue they produce has allowed Nigeria’s leaders to largely ignore the concerns of anyone outside of a well-heeled network of ‘elders’ with ties to the old Nigerian Army regimes. This, argues Allen, is the true divide that characterizes modern Nigeria—the one between those inside the Nigerian power elite and everyone else.
Boko Haram’s radical leadership plays on this divide. In Nigeria today, poverty and lack of education are exacerbated by a massive youth bulge, with 69 percent of the population below the age of 30. For unemployed young men in the north without the connections to get a patronage job, the mosque and the madrassa promise food, shelter, and a target for unfocused anger. From a young age, street children are sent out to beg for a mullah in exchange for Quranic schooling. Once grown, these so-called almajiri are steeped in orthodox Islam but otherwise unprepared for productive life, making them perfect foot soldiers for Boko Haram. The Nigerian government may be losing the battle against Boko Haram now, but it has been losing the battle for these youths for years.
Boko Haram’s Islamic fundamentalism is both telling and deceiving. For all Nigeria’s imbalances, its Muslim population (larger than those of Algeria, Morocco, and Libya combined) is hardly a persecuted minority. While Nigeria’s current president is a Christian, Boko Haram’s violent campaign began under his predecessor, the Muslim Musa Yar’Adua. In the group’s northern homeland, part of the Islamic Sokoto Caliphate as late as 1903, 12 states enforce some form of sharia law. Boko Haram’s leaders complain that these laws are too superficial, focused on catching alcohol shipments and policing the content of Nigeria’s Kannywood movie industry, and they seek to impose strict sharia law throughout Nigeria. But sharia would never be accepted in the south, where most of Nigeria’s over 80 million Christians live. The few times that Boko Haram have broached negotiations, their chief demand is not sharia but the freeing of all their prisoners and immunity from prosecution.
The negotiations make clear the true purpose of Boko Haram—self-preservation at all costs. The group has bombed churches in the past, most prominently in a coordinated attack on Christmas Day 2011 that killed 40. But most of their attacks are against local infrastructure; they burn down primary schools, rob banks, and ransack countless police stations, amassing weapons and cash as they go. They have also begun bombing cell towers, supposedly in response to the government’s success in tracking them using cellphones. The high profile attacks against churches and the UN Headquarters in Abuja in 2011 garner the international hand-wringing, but it is the endless low-profile blows that actually make Boko Haram a textbook jihadist insurgency. Like al-Qaida in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan, the vast majority of their victims are fellow Muslims. In fact, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell has argued that Boko Haram “appears to be a civil war among Muslims.”
The Muslim-led state governments of northern Nigeria are unlikely to give in to Boko Haram—nor should they—but they are as much to blame for making the situation worse. Boko Haram’s turn to large-scale terrorist operations only occurred after its original leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was killed in police custody in July 2009. Since then, state police and the federal Joint Task Force have committed numerous extrajudicial killings, unlawful detentions, and acts of torture in their anti-Boko Haram campaign, drawing strong condemnation from Amnesty International. Lacking in legitimacy, the party leaders of northern Nigeria defend their positions by descending ever deeper into violence. The killing of innocents turns ever more young Muslims against the government, and the climate of lawlessness encourages unaffiliated groups to rob and kill with impunity, either claiming to be Boko Haram or counting on the assumption that they are.
There is hope that this cycle of violence can be broken if Nigeria’s security services are willing to take the first step, stop their extrajudicial killings, and pursue justice rather than revenge. But a long-term solution to Boko Haram’s uprising can only come through addressing Nigeria’s rampant corruption. Even police violence is an indirect product of this corruption; in 2012, the BBC reported that $6 billion in fuel subsidies were stolen from the Nigerian federal government in the last two years, much by corrupt officials. At the same time, noted Sam Nda-Isaiah, a columnist for the Nigerian newspaper Leadership, “the police received less than 10 percent of their appropriated budget.” While these circumstances do not excuse state atrocities, they help to explain why the police prefer killing suspects to prosecuting them.
Western governments could be instrumental in pressuring on the Nigerian government to stop extrajudicial killings and bar corrupt officials within its ranks, but the lack of a political will makes serious efforts unlikely. Despite racking up a death toll of at least 815 in this year alone, Boko Haram has only garnered 109 mentions in The New York Times since January, compared to 2,970 mentions of Hamas. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department identified three Boko Haram leaders as foreign terrorists but declined to classify the entire organization as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, with the concomitant freezing of any assets of the group. Some within Nigeria murmur that the State Department held back at the behest of the Nigerian government, who feared increased scrutiny of Nigeria’s citizens around the world.
Ultimately, the oil that props up Nigeria’s leaders domestically also secures their position internationally, shielding them from the pressure placed on less strategic nations. Almost no one wants to see the Boko Haram bloodshed continue, but people want even less to see the oil stop flowing. And so, far from the traditional battlefields of jihad, far even from the Niger Delta oilfields that power the world, the battle for Nigeria’s soul rages on.
Carlo Davis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.